Beyond Blocking Sidewalks

Scooter companies claim their devices reduce S.F.’s dependency on cars — but that doesn’t mean they’re clean and green.

It’s been more than six weeks since San Francisco demanded that three scooter companies — Lime, Bird, and Spin — pull their hundreds of unpermitted vehicles off city sidewalks and apply for operating permission from the SFMTA. Since then, more than a dozen companies sent in their requests for the 1,250 scooter spots, making their case in PDFs spanning anywhere from 24 to 117 pages.

Investors, CEOs, and scooter enthusiasts wait with bated breath to see if the SFMTA will select Bird, Hopr, Jump, Lime, Lyft, ofo, Razor, Ridecell, Scoot, Spin, UScooter, or Skip — or a combination of several —  for its pilot program, but the city is in no rush to make a decision.

Nevertheless, the situation isn’t on pause; the applications, and what they contain, raise questions not just about scooters on sidewalks (the most common complaint), but about their environmental impact, management, and effects on San Francisco’s gig economy.

Leading the charge against the rampage of the rogue motorized scooters is Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who drafted a vital piece of legislation limiting scooter companies’ presence on city sidewalks, and who has not minced words regarding his distaste for the “act first, ask for permission later” attitude.

“It’s clear that many of these companies continue to build their corporate empires off of a basic premise: Making massive profit always trumps protecting the public, and innovation is only possible by cutting corners,” Peskin said during a Land Use and Transportation Committee meeting in April. “Our laws, the very foundation of our democracy, are here to be scoffed at, and San Francisco is only here to quite literally — pun intended — be given the bird by tech CEOs who jump from one company to the next after they overstay their welcome.”

It’s a great quote, and if you’ve been following the behavior of scooter companies, not entirely inaccurate. But what he followed it withstood out to us.

“I have yet to see any of them do one thing to actually address our massive transportation infrastructure and operations deficit, nor take on the automobile industry. In fact, some of those companies are even being financed by companies like Uber,” Peskin said.

The claim that scooters reduce the public’s dependence on cars is a dubious one, yet to be backed up by data, but scooter companies and their investors use it all the time.

“This is a huge opportunity right now to have a huge impact on transportation,” Bird Founder and CEO Travis VanderZanden told Fortune. “We think it’s the right solution to get people out of cars. It’s lightweight. It’s easy to use. It’s affordable.”

But if environmental issues and congestion reduction are really at the core of these companies’ value system, then it’s worth a look at the bigger picture of how scooters get to our streets — and how long they last.

SF Weekly reached out to 13 scooter companies that submitted applications to the SFMTA, to ask about the country of origin for their vehicles and their estimated lifespan. Unsurprisingly, not a single company responded by press time, so we were forced to do our own research.

With the help of TechCrunch, we tracked down one model: Bird scooters, which operated on S.F. streets permit-free for weeks. The company appears to have sourced their devices from Xiaomi, a Chinese company, which means they’re being shipped here in containers. The International Maritime Organization estimates container ships emit 2.2 percent of the world’s total CO2 emissions, an amount expected to rise to nearly 35 percent by 2050.

The shipping of thousands of scooters from China would be excusable if they had the lifespan of a bicycle; stand on Market Street for just five minutes during rush hour, and you’ll see a dozen vintage steel-frame bikes from the 1980s and ’90s flying down the bike lanes. But scooters are not made to survive the wear-and-tear of commuters, bumpy streets, and angry people who throw them into the Bay. While some parts can be replaced, others break down completely after enough use.

In its application, Lime claimed its lithium scooter batteries last only 300 charges, making their total lifetime for daily use in San Francisco a few months. Spin contends its batteries will run for 750 charges, and UScooter says 1,000. With around five rides a day estimated, it’s likely the scooter batteries will need to be charged daily, or every other day, to keep running. But whether it’s 300 or 1,000, these batteries are considered to be disposable.

In a number of applications, scooter companies claim they already have battery recycling programs in place. We reached out to Recology to learn more — and learned that San Francisco does not currently have a processing center for the type of batteries scooters use.

“We understand that scooters can have high-capacity lithium batteries and that they can be challenging to manage because they may not retain a charge,” Robert Reed of Recology said,  highlighting that the responsibility needs to be on the corporate entity. “Product manufacturers are encouraged to engage in producer responsibility and make products that are environmentally responsible. Companies that make and sell paint, for example, set up programs to recycle their paint. Companies that sell printer cartridges design them to be refilled and take them back. Retailers that sell car batteries take them back. Like paint, printer cartridge, and car battery retailers, scooter companies are ‘commercial enterprises’ and can set up programs to take their high-capacity lithium ion batteries back or contract with businesses that specialize in recycling of these larger batteries.”

But with no commercial lithium battery recycling businesses operating in San Francisco, we’re once again talking about shipping products long distances. 

Shipping stresses aside, other operational efforts may also contradict scooter companies’ claims that the vehicles decrease traffic. When describing how scooters would be picked up for recharging and moved around the city, most applicants mentioned the use of cars and vans, which would be driven around at night to collect the vehicles. With 1,250 scooters expected in the first pilot program round, and an eventual 2,500 overall, this will no doubt be a large task, particularly if the plan is — as Skip suggests — to pick up every scooter that needs charging or repairs each night starting at 6 p.m., and then redistribute them by 6 a.m. the next morning.

Some applicants pledge that they would only use electric bicycles and cars for this task, but accountability might be murky. If the people picking them up are badly paid contract workers, they’ll most likely use whatever vehicle they have on hand.

Electric or not, dozens of drivers dashing all over town every night to collect dead scooters won’t exactly help reduce the city’s traffic congestion issue.

In the end, after reviewing hundreds of pages of applications, it seems obvious that San Francisco is faced with a great opportunity to dictate how its streets are used. It’s not that scooters in themselves are bad, but many of the strategies around them are. The applications themselves are vital sources of information, and if read with a critical eye, they disclose a slew of issues the city can prevent if it acts fast. Instead of simply choosing the best option —  which is in our opinion is undoubtedly Scoot, with the best low-income user plan, a multilingual platform, the longest-lasting battery, and the best redistribution strategy — the SFMTA could create a new set of high-quality guidelines based off what companies have already proposed. It would mark the beginning of an important transition, in which the city creates visionary policies preemptively — not just passively as reactions — and demands that tech companies create products and strategies that may not exist yet.

Because in the end, as we’ve already learned with scooters, Lyft, and Uber, it’s much, much harder to control companies once they’ve already deployed their devices on San Francisco streets. Once permits are issued, it’s immensely difficult to revoke them. With a decision on scooter applicants expected to be announced before the end of the month, we’ll see if the SFMTA has the courage to raise the bar.

Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor. |  @TheBestNuala

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